Are you thinking about suicide? You are not alone. Contact 113 suicide prevention through www.113.nl or call 113 (local rate) or 0800-0113 (free).
Every 40 seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide,' begins professor of safety and interventions Marieke Liem. ‘In the Netherlands, it’s over five people a day.’
On Tuesday, the Spanish Steps at the Wijnhaven building are packed with students who have come to listen to a lecture by three professionals on suicide prevention as part of the global suicide prevention week. Before the start of the lecture, every student, including unsuspecting passers-by, are handed a golden ribbon they can pin to their chest to show their support for tackling the growing epidemic. It is noisy due to the constant flow of students around the steps, but according to movement scientist and epidemiologist Saskia Mérelle, we cannot be loud enough: ‘It’s very special, we are really out in the open. This is exactly how we can break the taboo.’
But the numbers hit hard. As Mérelle presents the Dutch statistics, the crowd falls silent in an instant. The percentage of adolescents and young adults committing suicide has doubled over the past 20 years. In 2022, one in three deaths was a teenager, and one in five a person in their twenties.
In addition to the hard facts, Mérelle also focuses on notable trends in research on youth suicides in the Netherlands. For example, we are seeing a gender paradox: women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more successful. There are currently twice as many male suicides as female, partly because men often experience a higher threshold to talk about problems and seek help.
The final slide of her PowerPoint is supposed to lift the hearts of the men in the room. Next to a cute cat picture is a quote from the new Barbie film in bold pink letters: ‘I am Kenough.’
Manager of care at 113 Suicide Prevention Maryke Geerdink discusses their strategy for handling phone calls and chat conversations with desperate people seeking help. This helpline is staffed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, by trained volunteers who are ready to provide support to suicidal people. After checking if the person seeking help is safe, they try to find out the person’s reasons for suicidal thoughts in a conversation and find a solution together.
‘Whether or not someone decides to take that next step is and remains their own choice,’ says Geerdink.
‘No one else is responsible for that. All we - and you - can do, is be there and listen.’
That is more important than giving advice, she explains: ‘Try to be genuinely curious about someone's story and let the other person maintain control.’
The biggest misconception perpetuating the suicide taboo is that talking about suicidal thoughts is said to have negative consequences. Those close to people with suicidal thoughts (or even caregivers) are afraid of putting ideas in their minds or reinforcing existing fantasies, while those struggling with suicidal thoughts feel like a burden to those around them and see no other way out. If neither initiates that vital conversation, the vicious circle continues.
‘Asking about suicidal thoughts will never put ideas into someone’s head if they weren’t already there,’ Geerdink emphasises. ‘It will only help the person open up. Don’t underestimate how much of a difference you can make by being there for someone in their darkest moment.’
This academic year, five universities will launch a new learning path entirely dedicated to suicide prevention.
These modules were developed by, among others, assistant professor Joanne Mouthaan, who was recently awarded the Casimir Prize (for educational innovation).
‘The subject is of such great social importance that it really should be incorporated as a fixed component in all psychology programmes,’ Mouthaan believes.
‘Everyone who eventually gets a job in the mental health sector should be adequately trained in it.’
With the help of texts, videos and case studies, students learn about the origins of suicidal thoughts and how to deal with someone experiencing these thoughts in practice. ‘Thanks to the interactive elements, it’s very practical and you really enable students to do it themselves,’ says Mouthaan.
Following a one-year trial period, the learning path is now being introduced for the first time in the bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes in psychology.
The trial period is now starting in the follow-up programmes, so that ultimately, the learning material on suicide prevention will run through the entire programme as a common thread.
‘We want support staff to feel confident,’ says Mouthaan. ‘So far, many of them have found it daunting. This is because they simply haven’t acquired enough knowledge or it has been presented in a fragmented manner.’
What is essential in dealing with people experiencing suicidal thoughts is making the subject discussable, Mouthaan stresses. The barrier that prevents many care workers from initiating the conversation is misplaced.
‘Ask someone about it. It will not make things worse, but lighten the load.’